By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
It’s reasonable to presume that no one paid for tickets to see the New York Yankees in the 1920s so that they could watch future Hall of Famer Miller Huggins manage from the dugout. The big crowds came to see Babe Ruth swing for the fences. Sixty years later, no one paid for tickets to watch Phil Jackson, who would go on to coach his teams to a record 11 NBA championships, strategize on the sideline for the Chicago Bulls. Fans packed arenas to see gravity-defying Michael Jordan make magic on the court in much the same manner that the Bambino once did in the batter’s box.
All of which makes Saturday night’s third meeting of welterweights Manny Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs) and Timothy Bradley Jr. (33-1-1, 13 KOs) something of an anomaly. Oh, sure, there is some standard intrigue to the HBO Pay Per View clash at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand in that the fighters have split their two previous bouts, making this a “rubber match,” which always hints at some sense of competitive closure. But there is a widespread belief that Pacquiao deserved to get the nod in his first fight with Bradley, who came away with a hotly disputed split-decision victory, before Pacquiao bounced back to clearly win the rematch on points.
Nor have Pacquiao and Bradley, polite and restrained by nature, gone into the gutter to conduct an inflammatory war of words, although Pacquiao did create a bit of a stir with his politically incorrect comments on same-sex marriage, which he has since said were taken out of context. Even Pacquiao’s pronouncement that he would definitely retire after this bout has become less of a story line as the 37-year-old Filipino superstar, the only man ever to win world titles in eight weight classes, now is dropping hints that he might decide to fight on.
It has been left to the respective trainers, Freddie Roach for Pacquiao and Teddy Atlas for Bradley, to rev up the hype machine by going public with a personal feud that seems genuine and, to some extent, has matched or even superseded public interest in the fighters they represent. To some degree, Pacquiao-Bradley III will serve as a referendum as to which of the two celebrity cornermen is the better now and, just maybe, for posterity.
“I know Teddy personally. I’ve had a couple of altercations with him,” said Roach, 56, winner of a record seven Eddie Futch Trainer of the Year Awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. “I don’t like him, and he doesn’t like me. That’s just how it is.
“It’s the first time we’re facing each other, so it’s a little competitive. But that’s not why I want Manny to win the fight. It has nothing to do with Teddy Atlas, and I really don’t care what Teddy does. So, who is he? An announcer? I won’t give him credit until (Bradley) beats a legit fighter. Let’s face it, you look at the guy (Bradley) beat (Brandon Rios, in his first bout with Atlas) was fat and out of shape. He looked like he wanted to retire even before the fight.”
For his part, Atlas, 59, is just as dismissive of Roach, whose reputation, he said, is inflated by Pacquiao’s success, which Atlas believes could have been achieved with any number of equally qualified trainers.
“I don’t care what (Roach) thinks,” Atlas said on a video posted by HBO. “I’ve been in this business 40 years, longer than him. I’m more than a passenger (with Bradley), more than a guy going along with something that I shouldn’t go along with.”
For all their obvious differences – the unfailingly courteous Roach has been with Pacquiao for 15 years, the excitable, take-no-crap Atlas with Bradley for only the past six months or so – it is their similarities that make the friction between them such a jumble of contradictions. Each is regarded as a brilliant constructor of fight plans, capable of extracting maximum productivity, both physically and emotionally, from their charges. Each is brutally honest, sometimes to their detriment. And, make no mistake, each has a sufficiently large ego that does not allow for the merest possibility that someone else could be more knowledgeable about the intricacies of boxing.
Lastly, and perhaps more important, each is considered the most accomplished pupil of legendary mentors, both of whom have taken their earthly 10-count and are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Roach – who also has been inducted into the IBHOF, in 2012 — learned his craft from the venerable Eddie Futch, who help mold the careers of 22 world champions, including Joe Frazier, Alexis Arguello, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Marlon Starling and Riddick Bowe. For Atlas, that guiding hand was provided by Cus D’Amato, who helped take Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres to world titles, and undertook the process that led to Mike Tyson joining that list.
It might even be inferred that it is the ghosts of those two larger-than-life figures – Futch, who was 90 when he died on Oct. 10, 2001, and D’Amato, who was 77 when he passed away on Nov. 4, 1985 — that are competing for an added layer to their legacies as are Pacquiao and Bradley, or Roach and Atlas. Whoever wins Saturday night not only gives a measure of credence to the elevation of Roach over Atlas, or vice versa, but, in a residual manner, to any lingering vestiges of the Futch-vs.-Cus argument.
There are those who consider Futch, a onetime stablemate of Joe Louis, as the greatest of all trainers, on a pedestal above even those upon which the revered likes of Ray Arcel, Whitey Bimstein, Jack Blackburn, Angelo Dundee, Emanuel Steward, George Benton and Gil Clancy reside. Quiet, polite and dignified, Futch always spoke concise English, never raised his voice and had a fondness for 19th-century British poets. His disinclination to call attention to himself might explain his slow rise up through the ranks, which obliged him to find employment as a hotel waiter, road laborer, welder, sheet metal worker in an aircraft plant and a distribution clerk in the Los Angeles Post Office in addition to his duties as a trainer.
Roach, who at various times has also worked the corner of such notable fighters as James Toney, Miguel Cotto, Wladimir Klitschko and Bernard Hopkins, is as meticulous in his handling of fighters as was Futch, who also trained Roach.
“He’s absolutely brilliant at breaking things down,” said one of Roach’s former fighters, Irish featherweight Bernard Dunne. “He’ll make time to help you understand, no matter who you are or what your ability. He treats us all the same, whether we’re novices or world champions. You just don’t see that in boxing.”
D’Amato’s approach was markedly different from Futch’s, as is Atlas’ to Roach’s. When Bobby Stewart, who “discovered” a then-12-year-old Tyson at the Tryon Residential Center for Boys and brought him to D’Amato’s training facility in Catskill, N.Y., for further refinement, Cus made him the personal project of Atlas, whom D’Amato referred to as the “young master.”
Although Atlas also had been a troubled youth who came to regard D’Amato as something of a second father, the two eventually disagreed on how to handle Tyson, for whom a separate, far more lenient code of personal conduct was allowed by D’Amato. Atlas has said that the aging D’Amato, who saw Tyson as his last great hope for winning a world championship, made allowances for the teenage phenom’s insolent behavior that he would not have accepted from anyone else.
Flash point came when a 16-year-old Tyson “put his hands” on the 11-year-old niece of Atlas’ wife. A furious Atlas then confronted Tyson, putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill him if he ever again did such a thing. But instead of disciplining Tyson, D’Amato cut ties with Atlas, who had served as Tyson’s lead trainer for four years and was with D’Amato for seven.
“At that moment I hated Cus every bit as much as I hated Tyson,” Atlas said in his autobiography, Atlas. “I had trusted Cus. We were partners. I knew if I allowed this, the next time Tyson would take it further. He would rape her. Or someone else.”
All these years later, Atlas remains ambivalent about his relationship with D’Amato. But one thing has not changed; unlike Roach, the figurative iron fist in the velvet glove who followed Futch’s lead by getting his fighters to do as instructed with patience and reason, Atlas has held firm to a my-way-or-the-highway approach. He has walked away from lucrative training gigs with, among others, Donny Lalonde, Michael Moorer, Shannon Briggs and Alexander Povetkin because they resisted his dictums. While Atlas has retained a high profile in the sport through his 18 years as a color analyst for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, for NBC for the last four Olympics and, most recently, for Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN, he has resisted any number of offers to train interested fighters – or at lead he did, until Bradley came calling.
“I spent several days thinking about it (accepting Bradley’s request for Atlas to train him),” Atlas said before their first fight together, the ninth-round stoppage of Brandon Rios last Nov. 7 in which Bradley either looked very sharp, Rios very dull, or perhaps some combination thereof. “I went back and forth, going over so many things. It wasn’t an easy decision. It would have been very easy to say no instead of yes. I was hesitant at first, but what I knew about the kid in terms of his character – not only in the ring, but in his personal life – was a factor.”
Trust in boxing, as in anything else, is or should be a two-way street. Pacquiao has been with Roach so long it almost seems as if they are joined at the hip. The relationship between Bradley and Atlas is still in its formative stages and, given Atlas’ history of walking away from fighters who come to chafe at his way of doing things, it is hardly certain that the current mutual lovefest will long endure. In any case, Roach believes that Bradley will lapse into the pre-Atlas version of himself once he finds himself in tough with Pacquaio.
“I don’t think there’s a new and improved Tim Bradley,” Roach said. “Fighters try to improve and change, but when they get hit, they revert to what they normally do best.”
What happens in the ring is always what it is. But figure on more time than usual focused between rounds on the instructions and exhortations given by the trainers to their fighters, more or less equal partners in a quest that will help to define the evolving status of all concerned, including those of a couple of dead men whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day.